Dr. Elaine Heffner: Separation worries

Dr. Elaine Heffner More Content Now

Many mothers have raised questions and expressed concerns about the impact of separation on their preschool children. These questions relate to summer programs rather than the start of school since many day camp programs for even pre- preschool children now exist. The concerns expressed range from whether this might help children be prepared for school in the fall to whether a bad experience would make starting school more difficult.

There are two issues: the meaning of separation for children and parents generally, and the nature of summer programs for young children. The questions reflect the many ideas and worries parents have about children separating from them, particularly when there are so many working mothers who struggle with feelings of guilt.

Thinking about these issues has been somewhat distorted by the specter of separation anxiety. A developmental step that is part of normal development has become a sign that something is wrong – something to worry about. Infants express stranger anxiety at around eight months of age as they become aware of the difference between mother and others. They may become upset when approached by a “stranger.”

This can also happen in 2- to 3-year-olds as children struggle with the realization that they and mother are separate people. The behavior of children when separated from mother is often an expression of anxiety about control over their own impulses. Children at that stage are involved in a struggle between their own wishes and the wishes of their parents. They still need the presence of a parent to reassure themselves about their own behavior.

Programs which are geared to the development of young children understand this. They generally allow for a gradual separation process and/or permit parents to stay longer as needed. As children form relationships with teachers, they learn that other adults will also help them and are better able to function in a group setting without a parent or familiar caregiver present.

Many summer day camp programs are not geared to dealing with separation in this way. The expectation is that a parent will drop a child off and the continued presence of a parent is not acceptable. Many very young children are not ready to deal with this kind of abrupt separation and may react with upset. This, in turn, often leads to more intense clinging to mom and greater anxiety for both child and mother. In reality, a summer day camp for a young child who has never experienced prior separation may not be the best plan for that child.

That said, in the real world mothers work, and it may not be possible for a parent or other caregiver to stay with a child even when desirable. Here the individual situation must be considered. When children start preschool, the fact that some children have more difficulty with separation than others does not mean that something is wrong. Children vary greatly, and their behavior in this regard is not a reflection on either child or mother. If a mother or caregiver is unable to remain with a child for a time, most early childhood programs are prepared to deal with this. A teacher can be a support for a child who is having a difficult time.

The point is that this is a developmental step, which children can be helped to work through, as they are with other developmental steps that may be hard at first. Parents are upset by children’s upsets. But the fact that something is hard doesn’t make it bad. Both children and parents are strengthened when children are helped to take such steps.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at